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  • Evangelia Papoutsaki

Jamaica: Rasta, Bob and Reggae

University of West Indies, Mona campus, Kingston; vast and beautiful, tropical and a site for exploration, the grounds of a colonial sugar cane plantation remnants of which you still see around and a site that reminds its visitors about its former slave inhabitants whose descendants might be on campus studying or teaching today. Passing through a park I noticed it was dedicated to the prime ministers who had studied at UWI (I must find how many!)

I found a fruit stand and bought a papaya whose taste reminded me of my years in Papua New Guinea and despite the fact that this in in the Caribbean and PNG in the Pacific, I could still feel a connection between the two, and me in between trying to find a sense of familiarly in my new location. I haven’t had a papaya as sweet and as aromatic since I left PNG, you need the tropics for such sweetness, for such aroma and need to eat it on location too. The fruit seller asked me to take a photo and put it on Instagram giving the location of his stand, he thought of me perhaps as one of those “influencers”’? I don’t have an Instagram account, so here it is on my blog. I have a week on campus while convening the SICRI conference, so I’ve solved my fresh papaya breakfast need.

I finally met Bob at his home in Kingston and Bob said to me not to worry, to be happy, “when you worry you make it double” and I said to Bob, “ya man, yuh right”!

Part of the conference cultural tour, a ‘must’ visit to Jamaica’s most celebrated son’s house, now museum, turned up to be the best ever tour, entertaining, engaging, funny, inspiring, informative, spiritual and so much more. The legacy of this man lives today in the body of his work that keeps inspiring us in its universal message of acceptance and standing for our right. So I was re-energized so to speak but at the same time I kind of felt a bit of an existential angst at the end of the short film on his life with him saying “my life is for other people”. Ya man, yuh right but that’s a hard path. Not in possession of a great talent as his, I am condemned to a life of “averageness” and that stings...

And on a lighter tone, impressed as I was at how he managed to have 12 children, I asked the museum guide how did he achieve that while being married to one woman and before dying at the young age of 36 only to be scold that Bob did not die! Huh? I thought oh man, these Rastafarians have really idolized Bob Marley so much so that that they refuse to accept his death. Well, turns out for Rastas only a bad person dies, someone like Bob he just passes, as his positive impact on people continues. I’ll take that, so keep it in mind when I say someone died...

[note 1: turns out he only fathered 3-4 kids with his wife, for the remaining he just “spread the love”...impressively 5 of them turned up to become multi-Grammy award winners, so it’s in the Marley genes it seems]

[note 2: “All desent governments and dis this and that, these people that say they’re here to help, why them say you cannot smoke the herb? Herb… herb is a plant, you know? And when me check it, me can’t find no reason.” “All them say is, ‘it make you rebel’. Against what?”—Interview (1979) with Dylan Taite in Aotearoa, New Zealand.]

Down town Kingston is a riot of sounds and colours. While walking around the busy streets listening to loudly playing songs, I notice I was the only, visibly at least, foreigner and that photos or videos were not kindly taken. So the little video I shot was with my camera held low and very discretely. Jamaica is a big tourist destination but almost all tourist traffic is directed to the big resorts which keep you in and cater to all your needs, feeding the atmosphere of fear about Kingston as a violent place. Very few tourists stop in Kingston, I was the only person other than a family of Americans at the National Gallery of Jamaica which was a special treat of sorts, a kind of private viewing but what does that say about Kingston? So I decided to brave down town just because I refuse to give in to the politics of fear and I was rewarded with rich images of everyday commerce and local art.

They say you can’t take your possessions to your grave but clearly the inhabitants of this graveyard in Kingston thought otherwise! The May Pen cemetery in Trench Town is known for its grave displays and somehow we lucked out with this local guy from the Culture Yard across the street who was completely stoned (he had previously tried to serenade us with Bob Marley’s songs) but happy to help us cross the road (we did need help as the driving was crazy) and introduce us to the grave occupiers and their passions while alive, many of who he knew personally. Apparently this is not a very safe part of Kingston and photographers who want to come here are discouraged to do so. So we were lucky in both our ignorance and our serendipitous encounter with a stoned Kingstonian who acted as our impromptu grave guide!

Valia in Rastafarian vegan eatery heaven: ‘Ital’ vegan cooking is part of the Rasta philosophy and while Ibo Spice Portal on Orange st in Kingston looks like a hole in the wall that you can easily miss, it hides behind it a back yard and another world of taste. The Rasta cook showed us the ingredients used in their cuisine, including cactus flowers and ackee and prepared for us a snack that was just awesome with freshly grounded Jamaican coffee. Rastas eat a natural diet free from additives, chemicals and meat as a way of staying healthy and spiritually connected to the earth. I think I found my religion: reggae, dreadlocks and vegan food and Bob of course is my God!

Experiencing street art in Kingston: a visit to Fleet St and the Life Yard project was a moment of inspiration. In a serendipitous way, a filmmaker sitting behind me at a film screening at UWI heard me asking how to get there. He offered to put me in touch with one of his friends working there and that’s how we found ourselves spending time with this awesome group of Rastafarians that are serving their community through their art, training and feeding the kids programs, keeping them off the streets and mischief and ensuring they finish school while getting some crafts making training. They cooked for us a dish of ackee in their vegan style cooking, showed us around, entertained us with music and dance and farewelled us like old friends. Their friendliness, dedication, “coolness”, and generosity inspired me and once again I found myself feeling “inadequate” wishing I was rather working at Life Yard engaging directly with the community, especially through the art. If you ever make it to Kingston, make the trip to Fleet St, it will inspire you! And make sure you see that mural of the Great Wombmen (celebrating women’s womb)! They were the only people that understood what I meant when I said I come from my mother’s womb as an answer to the ever annoying question “where do you come from”. Yah man, they said, yuh right, we all come from the great womb! I loved them!